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An inhumane justice system

April 21, 2019

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THE inhumane workings of Pakistan’s criminal justice system are once again highlighted in evidence so stark that it should give pause even to a ruthless state apparatus. Between 2010 and 2018, the Supreme Court overturned death sentences in no less than 78pc of the 310 appeal cases that came before it during this period, ordering either an acquittal or a review, or commuting the sentence. In 2018 alone, it upheld the death penalty in only 3pc of the capital punishment cases that came before it. These are just a few among the findings of a research project by two human rights organisations — one Pakistani and the other UK-based — that were presented on Friday in a report to the federal law minister. Consider another statistic in the document: of the apex court’s reported judgements in capital cases between 2010 to 2018, 39pc were acquittals. In other words, the court found that those sentenced to death in nearly two out of five cases were wrongfully convicted — people who could have paid the ultimate price for a crime they did not commit.

Pakistan’s criminal justice system reeks of dysfunction at every stage. Planted evidence, custodial torture, forced confessions, false testimony, endless adjournments — these are only some of the problems it is riddled with. And yet, or perhaps it is further evidence of its being cruel in the extreme, there are 27 capital crimes on the statute books. Litigants without resources are of course the most affected: they cannot afford to bribe their way out of the legal quagmire, and their fate is often in the hands of overburdened state-appointed counsel. However, as one can see from the above study, and umpteenth others, trial courts have few qualms about not only convicting the accused on flimsy evidence but also sending them to death row. It is almost as though the state revels in its power to take the life of its citizens. Even a reprieve sometimes comes too late: in 2016, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers of murder, only for it to be discovered they had been executed the year before. Military courts, set up in the wake of the APS attack — and thankfully not given a second extension — sentenced at least 310 people to death and executed around 60 through an unprecedentedly opaque modus operandi.

True justice is based on a respect for human rights, the acknowledgement that every individual has a legitimate expectation to be judged for his actions fairly and transparently. The socioeconomic status of litigants must not determine their chances of having their liberty, let alone their life, snatched away. Most nations, except for some of the most retrogressive ones, have abolished the death penalty. We must do the same, and do so without delay. The collective conscience of this nation must refuse to accept any more state-sanctioned murder in its name.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2019